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I was on a internship abroad. We started a topic that is also carried out by their other student. The new research was repetitive, so I decided to take my time and automate the process. I spent some really long days and evenings preparing a proper script, which greatly improved the workflow.

But what happened - well, it turned out that the other guy copied the script from my home directory to himself without even asking for permission. I immediately informed the supervisor about this, but the guy not only did not react, but from that moment on he completely changed his attitude towards me, he started ignoring me and stopped talking at all, as if he was offended that I dared to inform them about such reprehensible behavior of the student.

I returned home. After some time, I received a general email, addressed to me and, surprisingly, that PhD student, that a draft of the manuscript is prepared and attached to the email. It turned out that the authors of the paper would be three: me, the doctoral student and the host.

I was very hurt by the behavior of the supervisor, that is, his lack of comment on the theft of the code and his change of attitude towards me to completely negative, as if I had done something to them.... This is the first time something like this has happened and it is another practice in a row.

If I'm honest, I wouldn't want to be associated with them in any way. Preferably, I would completely erase this internship from my resume and forget about it...

What do you think about the whole situation? Do you think it is wise to resign from the authorship of such a publication? Or to leave it as it is, because it is, however, a job that I put all my time into?

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    Your description sounds like a classical example of how to not handle the issue of who will co-author a paper. Anyway, it appears strange to me that you were not involved in writing of the draft, or were you? Writing is a substantial contribution obviously. So something like shared first authorship might be fair, don't you think? Jul 23, 2023 at 19:26
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    "Theft of code" ? I've been involved with various bits of coding at a (UK) University for 20+ years and all code goes in shared repositories and can be used by all members of a particular group. As long as the student didn't claim to have written your code, he did nothing wrong and your attitude comes across as refusing to work in a team, which will prove a major hindrance for your future career. There is a chance that you completely misunderstood the assignment. Jul 23, 2023 at 20:52
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    Can you think of a better title than "drop from co-authorship of manuscript" to describe your problem to potentially help people who have similar troubles to you in the future? Jul 24, 2023 at 9:01
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    @farmaceut: Stuff you write at work (university) belongs to your work, not to you. Code that only you can run is useless to the project and you might as well not bother. What I see is a bright summer student who refuses to cooperate with anyone and then throws a hissy fit when people try to work around his non-cooperation. I realize this sounds harsh, but I urge you to try to see the other side if you want to stay in the field. Jul 24, 2023 at 9:41
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    @Marianne013 Stuff you write at work belongs to your work --- This is a sweeping over-generalisation. The issue of IP in academia is much more complex than that. For instance, academic researchers keep authorship of papers they write --- the papers do not belong to University in any legal way. The rules on software are even more diverse. Jul 24, 2023 at 13:24

4 Answers 4

28

Publications, particularly first-authored publications in certain fields, including Chemistry, is the main currency of academia. You worked hard to develop research for this paper, and you deserve to have it on your CV as an author.

It is a shame that your internship was affected by a conflict with another student, and that the promoter was not able to manage the conflict appropriately. Academics are often excellent in research but not always perfect in managing people, particularly when it comes to managing conflicts. It is common for a PI or promoter to not know how to behave in a situation like this. Combined with stress and sometimes fear of exposure, it can result in shutting down the communication, similarly to what you observed. This is of course a poor experience for you — I am sorry that you had to go through this.

However, this episode is now behind you. It does not seem that you need to significantly interact with your former collaborators in order to complete the paper and get it published. I appreciate that work on this paper may bring back unpleasant memories and contribute to stress. You may need to discuss it with a professional or a mentor you trust. However, I think, the benefit of publishing the paper and having yourself recognised as a first author is also significant.

If you plan to develop your career in academia or a research-related industry, please consider completing this work to publication. You can then cease any further relationship with this group.

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Let me summarize the facts as I understand them:

  1. As a visiting researcher, you wrote some Python code that substantially improved the process of collecting and/or processing the research data. Another student then used this code without your permission, and the supervisor did not take action when informed of this.

  2. After you returned home, the student and supervisor wrote a draft paper based on the collected data, with the intent of publishing it with you as the first author. They sent you a draft by email.

  3. Throughout the process, you feel aggrieved because (1) the student used your code without permission, (2) the supervisor was uncommunicative, and (3) you provided the majority of the contribution to the paper. Consequently, you are considering withdrawing yourself from authorship of the paper.

I'm going to answer on the assumption that the above is accurate.

Someone used my code without my permission

To me, this is a surprising thing to be upset about. In my experience doing research in Computer Science in the U.S. and collaborating with others in Europe and Japan, it is standard practice to freely share code among the team, and when ready, to release it publicly under an open source license.

Code sharing is not just a matter of convenience or social culture, it is important to the scientific process. Quoting A survey of researchers’ code sharing and code reuse practices, and assessment of interactive notebook prototypes by Cadwallader and Hrynaszkiewicz (PeerJ, 2022):

Sharing code improves reproducibility, especially when made available before publication (Fernández-Juricic, 2021). Lack of source code—along with raw data, and protocols—has been described as the main barrier to computational reproducibility of published research (Seibold et al., 2021).

Sharing and publication of code is not required, but it is expected, and a different arrangement requires explicit discussion and negotiation (both among the team and with the employing institutions), ideally in advance of doing the work. Furthermore, when sharing is not the intention, the code should carry some sort of notice to that effect.

If I were the collaborating student in your scenario, I would be somewhat irritated that you had simply left the code in your private home directory, rather than putting it into a shared repository and proactively telling the rest of the team about it. (That said, I still would not have looked into another user's directory nor used what I found there without prior authorization; that part is questionable.)

If I were the supervisor in your scenario, I would be confused about why you were complaining about the student using your code. I think the supervisor probably should have done a better job at working with you to understand the issue, explain the local research culture, and come to a mutually acceptable resolution.

They wrote a paper without me

First, let's review the criteria for authorship on scientific papers. I'll quote Guidance on Authorship in Scholarly or Scientific Publications from the Yale Office of the Provost:

All co-authors should have been directly involved in all three of the following:

  • planning and contribution to some component (conception, design, conduct, analysis, or interpretation) of the work which led to the paper or interpreting at least a portion of the results;

  • writing a draft of the article or revising it for intellectual content; and

  • final approval of the version to be published. All authors should review and approve the manuscript before it is submitted for publication, at least as it pertains to their roles in the project.

Some diversity exists across academic disciplines regarding acceptable standards for substantive contributions that would lead to attribution of authorship.

You already contributed data for point 1. You've now been sent a draft to review, satisfying points 2 and 3. So you should be an author, assuming you follow through by contributing to the draft.

You might feel that the paper is already "done"--it is not! You still have plenty of opportunity to make major changes if you feel they are appropriate and valuable. Personally, what I would do in this situation is read the draft, give it a day, then imagine I was going to present the work at a conference. What is the most valuable contribution? How was this achieved? What might be good next steps? Having come up with your own answers to these and other important questions, now go back to the draft and ensure it conveys what you feel is important. Change as much or as little as is required. Then be prepared to work with the other authors to arrive at a paper you all are satisfied with.

I did all the work

To be blunt: no, you didn't.

At a minimum, the student and supervisor wrote the first draft. The student also did data analysis; they did so, at least in part, by using your code, but they still did that work. Data analysis is far more than just running a script and blindly accepting the output. Whether that student's contribution is precisely "equal" is unimportant, and you're not in a position to accurately judge that anyway.

It seems to me that your collaborators are fairly acknowledging your contributions by making you first author.

They didn't communicate enough

This part seems like a valid complaint. But remember that there are likely significant cultural differences, and they are probably unsure of exactly how to collaborate with a foreign researcher. None of the facts I'm aware of in this situation suggest malice or disrespect.

Furthermore, improving communication can be done by either party. If you think there's a problem in that regard, start by expressing that (in a constructive way). Instead of addressing the problem, it seems like you chose to work really hard on learning and coding, which of course has its benefits, but in this case led to a build up of resentment.

Conclusions

For this publication, remain as first author, but be sure to earn it by actively engaging during the writing process (points 2 and 3 of the authorship criteria). Try to put the science ahead of your personal misgivings regarding your collaborators.

Going forward, regarding code sharing, either adopt a different attitude toward sharing, or make it clear to your collaborators and employers ahead of time that you consider your code to be personal intellectual property--but that will likely limit your opportunities. And when you find yourself in a difficult work situation, don't just work harder while ignoring the problem.

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    I agree that code sharing is a good thing, but it should have been done via a polite discussion and commits to shared repository. Personal directories are personal for a reason, and should be treated with respect. You should not expect people to pro-actively embrace your work culture, if you never told them what this culture is. Jul 24, 2023 at 9:35
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    @farmaceut You went to a foreign country to explicitly be in the lab of foreign researchers, and interact with them in their home environment. Your culture isn't the relevant one here. You have to expect that everyone involved is playing by the rules and norms of the country you did the internship in.
    – R.M.
    Jul 24, 2023 at 12:21
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    @R.M. I've never come across a culture where it's acceptable to root around in someones private home directory and use the code you find in there.
    – user438383
    Jul 24, 2023 at 16:11
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    @farmaceut you're thinking as an individual. Think as part of a team. The team wrote the code. The team used the code. The team will publish the results of that work. Where is the theft?
    – thelem
    Jul 25, 2023 at 7:47
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    @thelem The team did not write the code. A single individual did. If the code had been put in a shared repo or otherwise released to the group as a communal thing, then it would have been team code. Ideally, this is what should have happened, but it didn’t. The fact that the code was even related to what the team was working on is actually kind of irrelevant here: it was written by one person and put in their own, private, personal folder. Someone else gained access to this person’s private folder and took material without permission. That is theft. Jul 25, 2023 at 10:49
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Since others have already given very good responses, I wanted to try to add another view that might be helpful: From what I can gather, I believe this is an example of questionable behaviour from all parties involved.

Starting with the obvious:

  • Using somebody else's work without at least acknowledging it, is questionable at best. The other student should have asked if they can use your script or they should have at least acknowledged it directly to you.
  • When bringing it up with your supervisor, they might have had multiple reasons to be unsure about the situation or think that it is best for them not to get involved. But at the very least they should have responded and given you pointers about the appropriate behaviour and not "leave you hanging".

But I am also unsure about your behaviour in this situation:

  • First, did you not contact the other student about the situation? It sounds to me that you immediately went to your supervisor without trying to resolve the issue directly. That might also be a reason why your supervisor reacted distanced to the problem since it is not their job to resolve your issues for you (only to mediate and - as a last resort - intervene).
  • Second, I find it a bit odd, that you were working on a shared project, with a task that was shared between others and chose to keep a tool that is useful in finishing this (shared!) project just for yourself and are even offended when others deem your work useful. Again, the way they used your work is questionable but at the same time it is also questionable to treat your contribution as a disconnected task that everybody needs to reinvent on their own.
  • Third, I understand that you are offended that others went through your personal folder (though how personal are they if others have access to them?), I would be too. But I keep wondering how you found out that the other student copied your script to their personal folder? I am not pointing that out to fault you, but to highlight how easy it is to end up "sniffing" in other peoples folders without any bad intent. Are you sure that the other student is aware that you wrote the script yourself? Maybe they think you copied it as well or it was even supplied by your supervisor. The way most OS link previously used files at several places, the other student might not even be aware that the script originated from your personal folder.

Nevertheless I agree with the already given responses that you should not pass on a chance of a first authorship so early on in your career. If you ever choose to work in academics you will regret not being able to put that in your CV.

Maybe it helps to contact the other student and tell them about your grievances. They might not even be aware that this was an issue for you.

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As someone who has spent a lot of years studying human behavior, I can tell that you are either quite young or you lack social exposure, or both.

There is nothing so wrong with what the other student did, sure he or she lacks a decent level of courtesy, but the real problem is your ego, it's why you feel entitled to the permission to use your code in a team project.

Your grievance was baseless and so was your escalation of the matter, you could have processed the matter from a positive light which means your code was worth using and be proud of yourself for distinctively contributing to the project. The student probably already told the supervisor where the code came from.

The probable reason why your supervisor did not react is because he may have had reservations about your behavior before this came up, maybe your unwillingness to share, your sense of entitlement, or your self centered approach to team work.

Don't get me wrong, I did not write this to make you feel bad, but if it does, then it's because the truth sometimes sting. And seeing how you easily get "very hurt" you need to take a chill pill and learn to take criticism.

You wrote this story here to make yourself look like the good guy, but experience has taught some of us that there are always three sides to a story, in this case, four, yours, the student's, the supervisor's, and the truth.

Finish that project and if possible request a meeting between the 3 of you to iron out the misunderstanding. And make sure you leave your ego at home when you go for that meeting. All the best.

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